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Schools seeking to avoid hiking lunch prices

School District 833 is trying to avoid increasing elementary and high school lunch prices by five cents next year.

The district's Nutrition Services budget included the increase earlier this month because of a new rule from the federal Department of Agriculture, said department director Barb Osthus.

The School Board on May 19 unanimously approved the budget but added an amendment that says the district will reject the mandate and no raise lunch prices next year, so long as there are no negative financial consequences, "as determined by the (district) administration."

Because of federal regulations, however, resisting the mandate to raise lunch prices won't be easy.

The government is taking action to prevent school districts with high numbers of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches from using federal payments to subsidize the cost of paid lunches for students from families not in poverty, according to the federal agency.

Under the mandate, schools with lunch prices below $2.46 must raise the price of fully paid lunches.

Fourteen percent of District 833 students receive free or reduced-price lunches. This year, elementary school lunches are $1.75 and secondary lunches are $2.

As directed by the board, Osthus said she talked to the Minnesota Department of Education about consequences if the district refuses to raise lunch prices. More information will be provided by July 1, she said, when the new policy enters a "comment" period, which ends in January.

Superintendent Mark Porter said he talked to U.S. Rep. John Kline's office to ask about exempting the district from the new regulation. Kline, a 2nd District Republican, is chair of the House education committee.

Osthus said in an interview it's possible that the district might have to put the new rate into effect when school starts. It could also get a reprieve after the comment period is over and revisions are made.

Board member Marsha Adou asked if it's legal to credit the five-cent increase back to student accounts if the requirement is later waived.

"I have mixed feelings about this," said Board member Jim Gelbmann. "The government is doing what taxpayers want and looking for ways to save money."

Osthus said the district gets $2.72 cents for every free lunch and $2.32 for a reduced price lunch. It also gets 26 cents for each fully paid lunch from the USDA and 12 cents from the state for all lunches.

Gelbmann said that the district "essentially" is subsidizing fully paid lunch prices.

"I don't believe we are," Osthus said. "Our numbers of free and reduced lunches are low."

Gelbmann asked what would happen if the district sent back the difference between what the free lunch costs and the amount of federal money it gets.

Osthus said it would affect the lunch program.

"This is just the first step of other increases," said Board Chair Leslee Boyd. "Why should we be punished for doing a good job?" she said. "I have a problem with that."

Board member Ron Kath said he hopes there are no consequences and plans to "fight to the Nth degree" against a mandated increase.